The new and innovative play "It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project" reaches into three different theatrical worlds and comes up with the best of them. As a comedy, it's a hoot. As a documentary, it's revealing. And as commentary, it achieves a poignancy that pokes through each of its well-deserved three acts.
But mostly, it's a hoot. It's also sweet and at times unabashedly raw and silly. "It's My Party," which is loosely about the way women sometime assess their lives and ultimately, how they perceive the world, began as something like academic research. Jennifer Childs, the all-around theater artist who directs the show and runs 1812 Productions, which is presenting it, created "It's My Party" from two years of interviews and workshops with women from across a social spectrum. Childs, whose specialty is comedy and whose theater company exists to explore comedy, wanted to find out what role humor plays in womens' lives.
Research is well and good – and it was possibly essential as a way to provoke Childs' muse. But unless you have the knack to convert what you learned into theatre, research on a stage doesn't work. Childs has not only the know-how, but more: seven super-talented Philadelphia actresses who go by their own names in this show and who add their own experiences to the blend, which turns out to be a restorative margarita on a sweltering day. (With a pink paper umbrella plopped in the glass, or something like that.)
Without spoiling the suprises of "It's My Party" – and some of these involve the way the show morphs gracefully into different styles of storytelling – I'll give you the basics. Act One involves an uptight, self-confounding doctoral student (the excellent Susan Riley Stevens) who's giving us a lecture about women and comedy while a chorus of women is attempting to perform in the same space. There's been a mix-up, and no one's willing to give, certainly not the leader of the pack (Drucie McDaniel, inherently funny with her postures alone).
In Act Two, Childs' research is obvious in a quick round of declarations from the women Childs interviewed. In the cast's delivery of these, the women ultimately synthesize their feelings with laughter. The cast members then begin to focus the material on themselves.
Cheryl Williams is a knockout when she tells about her breast cancer treatment – you're not sure whether to laugh or cry, and it becomes clear that if you grab on to the laughter, you somehow choose life. Cathy Simpson's recounting of an odd date is like nothing you ever heard and definitely in the Not Nice category of, say, your mother. Bi Jean Ngo's tale of her mother's Vietnamese feast turns into a fable of respect and revenge.
The other women – they include the flashy-dancing Melanie Cotton and Charlotte Ford, who can move seamlessly between outré and traditional theater – begin conjuring their mothers in a sort of Mama free-for-all.
Act Three is the party part of "It's My Party," and involves the dreams women have and the way pieces of fantasy somehow manage to show up in the fabric of reality. The entire show plays out on Lance Kniskern's sets, just right in the last act for a dreamy party, and with Rosemarie Mckelvey's colorful costumes and the delightful choreography of Emmanuelle Delpech.
You have to hand it to Childs and the women who perform "It's My Party" and make it their own, too. They deliver a comedy that really is gender-based – even when the show is unconcerned with body parts or sex, it could not be performed by men and be credible. They offer up a feminism that's stalwart and at the same time, affable; these women are not mouthpieces for polemic, they're real people in the real world. They celebrate womanhood on its own merits, and never cheaply at the expense of men. And most of all, they work magic on a high intellectual level: Deep inside the theatrical, "It's My Party" discovers the genuine.
"It's My Party: The Women and Comedy Project," from 1812 Productions, runs through May 19 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St. www.1812productions.org or 215-592-9560.
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